December 2, 2020

Databuse: Digital Privacy and the Mosaic

Databuse: Digital Privacy and the Mosaic
Source: Brookings Institution

In this paper, I explore the possibility that technology’s advance and the proliferation of personal data in the hands of third parties has left us with a conceptually outmoded debate, whose reliance on the concept of privacy does not usefully guide the public policy questions we face. And I propose a different vocabulary for that debate—a concept I call “databuse.” When I say here that privacy has become obsolete, to be clear, I do not mean this in the crude sense that we have as a society abandoned privacy in the way that, say, we have abandoned once-held moral anxieties about lending money for interest. Nor do I mean that we have moved beyond privacy in the sense that we moved beyond the need for a constitutional protection against the peacetime quartering of soldiers in private houses without the owner’s consent.[3] Privacy still represents a deep value in our society and in any society committed to liberalism.

Rather, I mean to propose something more precise, and more subtle: that the concept of privacy as we have traditionally understood it in law no longer describes well or completely the actual value at stake in the set of issues we continue to argue in privacy’s name. The notion of privacy was always vague and hard to pin down as an operational matter in law. But this problem has grown dramatically worse as a result of the proliferation of data about all of us and the ability to analyze and cross-reference that data systematically and instantly. To put the matter bluntly, the concept of privacy will no longer bear the weight we are placing upon it. And because the term covers such a huge range of ground, its imprecision with respect to these new problems creates great indeterminacy as to what the value we are trying to protect really is, whether it is gaining or losing ground, and whether that is a good thing or a bad.
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